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Miriam Lord: A Senator that’s going nowhere - and a courteous Minister of State who isn’t really there

Senator Tom Clonan wanted the Minister for Health to comment on 150 children with limb deformities and serious spinal issues not getting operations they desperately need. The Minister didn’t show up though

“On a point of order,” said the Minister of State for Housing, sitting at the little table in the Seanad chamber reserved for Ministers who come to address the House. “I am not in here.”

Kieran O’Donnell was certain.

“As I say, I came in to take another debate.”

You see, he was there, but he wasn’t there.


A kind of Schrödinger’s Deputy who had sealed himself inside the fathomless world of Seanad Éireann – and nobody knew if he was real or an apparition. Kieran went out of his way to reach this state, but it didn’t really matter, because the politician people really wanted to see was Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

Or failing that, one of his three handmaidens at the Department of Health – Anne Rabbitte, Mary Butler or Hildegarde Naughton. But it was a no-show in the Seanad from any representative of Team Donnelly.

They are busy people. The Minister was up for a roasting at the Oireachtas Health Committee on Wednesday morning. Hildegarde has to juggle her duties with being the Government Chief Whip, while Anne and Mary are always up to their eyes when they aren’t in the Dáil filling in for senior Ministers too important to turn up for routine questions from TDs on issues relating to their portfolios.

This absence posed a big problem for independent Senator and disability campaigner Tom Clonan, whose questions about the waiting list for children needing complex spinal surgeries were selected as one of four topics for discussion in Wednesday’s Commencement Debates. These slots are highly prized because line Ministers are supposed to come in and address them.

Tom was third on the list, and the sitting was briefly adjourned pending the arrival of a luminary from Health to address his issue (nobody arrived). But Kieran O’Donnell was in the chamber, waiting to tackle Senator Maria Byrne’s concerns about grants for doing up vacant properties in Limerick.

“Thank you very much for your comprehensive reply,” beamed Maria, after he told her all about them.

“It’s a scheme we are very excited about,” replied Kieran as he pushed his chair back and got to his feet.

Still no sign of anyone arriving for Tom though.

“Eh, Minister, you’re not taking this?” wondered the stand-in Chair, Victor Boyhan.


‘People get in here and quite rightly express concern about children in Gaza and Ukraine, but 150 Irish children are left in pain’

Kieran hesitated. Then he sat down again, loath to leave a fellow parliamentarian in the lurch like that.

Tom Clonan said he wanted the Minister for Health to comment on the terrible situation where 150 children with limb deformities and serious spinal issues are not getting the operations they so desperately need.

“I know of at least one child who has become permanently paralysed since we raised this issue prior to Christmas.”

Why had nobody turned up? “It is an affront to this House and it is an affront to the 150 children who are in pain as we speak,” he said, the anger rising in his voice.

He turned to Kieran. “Frankly, I won’t take a response from you.”

A group of secondary school students from Moyle Park College in Clondalkin watched from the public gallery with increasing interest.

“It’s not personal to you. You know the respect and the esteem I hold you in, but the Minister hasn’t bothered to turn up here.”

The Minister of State intervened. “I’m not in here,” he explained. He came in for a different matter “and out of respect for the House I remained in my chair”.

And Tom said he appreciated that.

“Here out of respect for the House. Former member,” repeated Kieran.

Having established he had nothing against the TD for Limerick City, Tom let fly.

Why are these children being put through such pain and trauma? Why are 150 children being left to languish on a list without vital surgery?

“A child has become permanently paralysed. That is completely and utterly unacceptable, and the Minister can’t even bring himself to come in here and answer a Commencement matter… People get in here and quite rightly express concern about children in Gaza and Ukraine, but 150 Irish children are left in pain.”

Tom Clonan is a veteran campaigner. He knows from bitter experience that he needs to make noise, become a nuisance even, to force the authorities to recognise the rights of disabled adults and children. He knows because he has fought for over two decades for his son Eoghan, who has a neuromuscular disease.

Tom declared he wasn’t leaving the chamber until the Minister for Health or one of his representatives came to the debate.

Acting Chair Victor Boyhan said the Minister of State, who was not scheduled to make a statement on the matter, had indicated he would like to say a few words.

But Tom, upping the decibel level, wanted an informed response from the relevant department and “not to get somebody coming in here and talking on the seat of their pants”.

No disrespect to Kieran, but what does he know about Orthokids?

‘I don’t care,’ retorted Tom, blood well and truly up. ‘I’ve raised this matter before, nobody is listening, what do you expect me to do?’

Then Tom took his case to the public gallery, swivelling around to address the students. “You go home and tell your parents what a circus this Seanad is. Tell them how we treat disabled children in this country. This is a civics lesson on how parliamentary democracy is abused.”

Kieran explained he couldn’t respond, as the issue was not within his brief. But he promised to go back to the Minister of Health and tell him what happened.

Tom thanked him again before lambasting the Minister for Health, who is responsible for everything which happens or fails to happen in his department.

“These 150 children are on him.”

Victor Boyhan tried to move matters on.

But Tom was going nowhere.

“I’m sorry Chair, you’re going to have to remove me from this chamber.”

“Now Senator, I’m chairing the meeting. I’m chairing the Seanad,” Victor reminded him.

“I don’t care,” retorted Tom, blood well and truly up. “I’ve raised this matter before, nobody is listening, what do you expect me to do?”

Sit down, maybe?

“You’re going to have to remove me from this chamber.”

“I’m not removing anybody,” murmured the mild-mannered Senator.

Tom refused to sit down.

“I’ll suspend the House,” threatened Victor.

“Suspend away.”

Twenty years protesting outside the gates of Leinster House and nobody listened, fumed the former Army whistleblower. And when he gets a mandate to come inside and raise those issues in the Seanad, his pleas on behalf of disabled children fall on deaf ears again.

“They don’t even turn up to listen.”

The House was suspended.

A couple of ushers watched from the margins in case they might have to forcibly remove him if he continued protesting after the resumption. He didn’t.

Colleagues, from across the political spectrum, spoke in support of his stance.

Michael McDowell summed up the feeling.

His colleague from the Independent Group was “rightfully outraged” by the lack of engagement from the Minister and his department, and Minister of State Kieran O’Donnell “was acting like a gentleman and as a courtesy to this House”.

When Tom Clonan left the chamber, the students from Moyle College were waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs.

Some of them said they had siblings with disabilities.

“Fair play to you,” said one.

And they gave him a round of applause.